Story by Michael Shapiro
Photos by David Liittschwager
With 3:46 left to play, the Giants are down by three after clawing their way back from an eight-point deficit in the third quarter. From his own twelve-yard line, Eli Manning completes a miraculous thirty-eight-yard pass to Mario Manningham. For the first time in the game, the Giants have a real shot at beating the Patriots. The scientists and the deep divers, most of them Giants fans and several Hinanos into the game, leap from their seats to shout variations of “Allllriiight!” and “Yeeeeahhh!” in the otherwise empty bar at the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort. Probably every American on the small French Polynesian island of Moorea is sitting in this room; the Europeans and Tahitians have better things to do than waste an idyllic afternoon yelling at a screen. But apart from a Super Bowl, there’s probably nothing that could have pulled these guys away from the work they’re doing here. Casual observers might take them for a bunch of yahoos getting amped over a football game—which maybe they are—but they’re also explorers on a voyage of discovery, the modern equivalents of Charles Darwin and Captain Cook and James T. Kirk.
I’ve just arrived for the last seven days of that voyage: the Moorea Biocode Project, perhaps the most ambitious survey of its kind ever attempted. Its four-year mission: to seek out new life by cataloging every non-microbial thing living on and around the island of Moorea—every species of plant, animal and fungus that can be seen with the naked eye. To do it, teams of scientists from around the world have taken turns converging on the tiny Richard B. Gump South Pacific Research Station on the edge of Cook’s Bay. Each team specializes in one of seven domains: terrestrial vertebrates, terrestrial invertebrates, marine vertebrates, marine invertebrates, plants, fungi and marine algae. They’ve helicoptered to remote peaks and dived to the deep reefs; they’ve delved into caves and poked around people’s yards. By combining traditional collecting techniques with new genetic sequencing tools, Biocode aims to take a snapshot of an entire tropical ecosystem, something that’s never been tried—partly because no one thought it could be done.
“Maybe it can’t be done,” shrugs Smithsonian Institute biologist Chris Meyer while giving me an overview of the project during halftime. Meyer’s both Biocode’s overall project director and a member of the marine invertebrate team. “It’s a tremendously ambitious project, a huge challenge, unprecedented,” he says. “We vacillate between saying, ‘OK, we’ve got a handle on it’ and, ‘Oh crap, it’s overwhelming.’ But you don’t run from that; you take it head-on. Yeah, it’s ambitious, but you’ve gotta start somewhere.”
Moorea makes for an ideal somewhere because it’s isolated, it’s small, it’s diverse but not too diverse and there are two biological research stations already on the island. It had already been well surveyed before the Biocode scientists showed up, with about five thousand known species. (It’s also beautiful, which takes the edge off the drudgery of lab work.) And now, after forty-eight intense months and nearly fifty thousand samples collected, the pace isn’t slackening; it’s going to come down to the last play of the game. Work will continue until the last ferry leaves for Papeete next Sunday. Hundreds of species new to science have already been discovered, and odds are that even in these final hours, more will be found.
Over the next week I’ll be embedded with the marine invertebrate team led by Gustav Paulay, whom Meyer calls “the best marine invertebrate zoologist in the world right now.” Paulay’s team arguably has the biggest to-do list: Marine invertebrates account for some 60 percent of Moorea’s total biodiversity. Working alongside the marine inverts team are the deep divers— four crazy guys from Hawai‘i who use mixed gases and rebreathers to dive three hundred-plus feet down, where they’re finding on average twelve new species per hour.
Unlike journalists embedded with military units, who mainly watch the action and try not to die, I’ll be working on the front lines—diving, collecting, analyzing samples, going for Nutella and beer runs. Not many laypeople get to watch the world’s experts in their fields conducting top-flight science, much less join in. But all that starts tomorrow; for now it’s football, where the game’s come down to the last play. Tom Brady’s desperate Hail Mary pass is batted down. Giants win, the television goes dark and the serene, glittering waters of Moorea beckon.